The Power of Diverse Authors and Stories

When I first started reading Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, I commented to a friend that I didn’t like the “linguistic trick” of using “she” for characters the narrator KNEW were male.  The ambiguous gender of the narrator didn’t bother me. And the story was amazingly good, so I stuck with it.

As I continued to read, I started thinking about why the pronoun issue bothered me, and I came to realize that what I was feeling was probably the same thing women feel when they encounter words like “mankind” or the use of “he” in most literature, though of course I could close the book and not see that anymore.  This, to me, was an important revelation.  I’ve always sort of rankled when people got pissy about words like “mankind,” because to me it’s always been obvious that this means ALL humans, not just men.  It’s right there in the definition, right?  But when I really thought about it, I saw how privileged that was.  As a male, I can say “Mankind means ALL people, not just men! Everyone knows women are in it, too!” and mean it–precisely because I’m male.  It doesn’t take anything from me.  And it occurred to me that if someone said “We don’t need to SHOW black people in the future, everyone knows they’re there,” I would think that person was a complete fucking idiot, and a racist dickbag, too.  And then I had to face that even I, a supposed feminist, have some sexist ideas I needed to examine more.

Having realized all this about halfway into the novel, something snapped, and it didn’t bother me anymore.  I’m not stupid enough to say that that’s it, I’m not full of sexist ideas anymore.  But I am willing to say that I won’t be casually dismissing anyone who says “That was maybe sexist,” or ignore my own privilege.  I’ve always been a staunch ally of women and People of Color, but I think sometimes I forgot that meant I had to examine my own attitudes as seriously as I looked at the attitudes of others, and that sexism doesn’t always mean “thinks women belong in the kitchen.”

This is, I believe, why we need diverse books, written by and about diverse people.  Literature, and more specifically stories, have a way of getting past our defenses, the walls we build between us and the Other.  Stories can force us to confront, even gently, our own views of the universe, our own distorted ways of thinking, better than a thousand arguments from others.

We all see the world from our own particular window, and none of us have exactly the same window.  Mine shows me how the world looks from a relatively privileged place.  But mine is not the same as the window of my friend Mike, who fled Cambodia at five years old, whose last sight of his grandfather’s home in Pnomh Penh was as it was hit by a mortar shell, and who has had to learn to fit in to white American culture.   And my window is not the same as my sister’s.  And it isn’t the same as my friend Brian, who has to deal with racism and homophobia both.

We need stories from authors from all over the world, from every race, from every group and social class, marginalized or not, to show us the view from their window.  Because only by combining our views can we widen them.

 

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About Michael Johnston

Father of a fifth grader, high school English teacher, writer. Forty-six years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA
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4 Responses to The Power of Diverse Authors and Stories

  1. M.E. Garber says:

    Thank you for this! Just realize “I may have been not seeing this” is such a huge thing to hear (from my perspective, at least), and that it gives me hope that the great future I keep “expecting” is getting closer, at long last. And ‘fessing up to this–you are brave, and awesome.

  2. Cat says:

    I’m glad you posted this. I had a lot less trouble with the pronouns in _Ancillary Justice_ than some of the reviews I’ve seen, and I suppose it’s partly that I *am* female. I don’t mind a world in which the default assumption is female (which is one way to read those pronouns.) I went through a couple of bemused moments when I realized that literally the only character whose gender I knew for sure was Severin’s. Then I realized that it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter to Breq or the other Radsch, and it didn’t matter to the story. The beautiful brave doomed character wasn’t a whit less important to me if she was another gender than I was envisioning. The fraught love relationship between people of different statuses wasn’t more or less fraught depending on whether it was straight or gay, or what gender anybody was.
    I loved _Ancillary Justice_ because it not only made me think new thoughts about the worlds outside my head–it made me think new thoughts about the worlds inside my head also; it was a very cool sensation, and something I wouldn’t mind experiencing more often.

  3. I never did settle on a gender for “Breq” in my mind, and I don’t know that I ever will. Which is kind of awesome, really. But yeah, Seivarden is the only character of the Radch given a specific gender. Others are given gender, but Breq isn’t positive. Which is also cool.

    All in all, I can’t wait for the next book.

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